There is a house in South Central, Los Angeles, whose inner walls and back yard have seen an unspeakable amount of pain, horror, and murder. It’s currently being occupied by a burly young man named Christopher Franklin, whose father, Lonnie Franklin, Jr., was arrested in 2010 at the age of 57 for a spate of serial murders in South Central dating back to 1985. Just why it took a quarter of a century to apprehend Franklin is the subject of Nick Broomfield’s latest – and very timely – slice of superb documentary filmmaking.
The reason for this tardiness isn’t that Franklin (for we can assume, particularly based on the evidence suggested by the film, that it was indeed he who murdered ten women between 1985 and 2007) was a killer possessed by genius. He was no sly Mephistopheles, no diabolical Lecter: he was, by all accounts, a middle-aged pervert, porn fiend and paterfamilias of a household whose matriarch inhabited a separate home and whose son inherited several of his father’s more unsavoury defects. Lonnie made little attempt to hide any of this.
No, the reason for Franklin’s twenty-five-year good luck streak is down to communal dilapidation, strict codes of conduct among the ghettoised South Centralites, and a festering, racialised mutual mistrust between the police authorities and said South Centralites. Imagine a world in which addicts smoke crack openly on crossroad corners; in which prostitutes roam the streets wearing no underwear in broad daylight; and you have modern-day South Central.
This not wholly untrue image (Broomfield captures these descriptions on film) sums up the LAPD’s vision of the community. Throughout the film, Broomfield successfully corrects the balance: that there is as much, if not more, moral degradation at the heart of the LAPD, and that there is as much humanity in the marginalised community of South Central as anywhere else. One of the film’s most comic moments is when Broomfield gets stopped by a police officer for not wearing a seatbelt. No-one need comment on this scene; it’s clear that when it comes to safeguarding the lives of whites, the police are happy to get involved. The lives of blacks don’t seem to be quite so high a priority. (The scene also confirms Broomfield’s more impish side; one of his hobbies is nicking towels from hotels.)
It turns out that many people in the neighbourhood knew Lonnie; some knew him well. Broomfield takes it upon himself to befriend and earn the trust of these people – something that the police should have done long ago – and, within minutes of film time, Lonnie’s best friends go from hurling racist insults at Broomfield to discreetly airing their real feelings about, and suspicious of, Lonnie Franklin. As the documentarian digs, various acquaintances of Lonnie’s reveal various examples of the killer’s highly dubious behaviour. The way many people see it, there was never any doubt that Lonnie was, at best, more than a little suspicious; at worst, he was downright dangerous. One of the film’s most fascinating accomplishments is its nuanced exploration of how such a man could earn so much respect and amity within the community, and why no-one even thought to turn him in.
The answer is rooted in the communal codes of conduct that have arisen as a direct result of the longstanding gulf between police and community. Nana Gyamfi, attorney, human rights activist and one of the film’s few talking heads, points out that “No-one wants to be the person that comes forward to the police with information.” Gyamfi has provided her 16-year-old son with a list of people to call in case of emergency. 911 is not on that list. As a member of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, she has more faith in grassroots organisations than in state-funded organs of justice. “You cannot just walk into an LAPD building and think you’re going to be treated with dignity, kindness and concern,” argues Gyamfi. “It is a 99% chance that this is going to be [made] an unpleasant situation for you.” It’s a vicious cycle: many South Centralites feel unprotected and marginalised by their local administrations, and so live outside the law; if and when they are apprehended for whatever reason, the punitive legal system chews them up and spits them out, discarding any future testimony or complaints made by the detainee as ‘unreliable’. This marginalisation reinforces the ghetto’s propensity for living outside the law. There’s no police/community dialogue, no dialectic, just a deep, deep divide.
Broomfield spends most of the film peeling away a recalcitrant surface to reveal the helpful, battle-hardened, often funny and always complex inhabitants of South Central. I won’t sketch any of the characters here, but I will say that as the credits roll you’re sorry you didn’t get to spend more time with them. One of them, the indomitable Pam Brooks, is credited as the ‘South Central Guide & Co-ordinator’, though in reality she is far more than that: if the South Central community is the heart of the film, she is the sassy pair of lungs, breathing vivacity, contacts and guidance into every frame. Richard Harris, in a scene whose casual, dropped-in nature speaks volumes about the risks of the film (he’s leaving hospital, having been beaten up by Christopher Franklin for speaking to Broomfield about Lonnie), is a warm, helpful, guilt-ridden presence, as is Gary McDonald, the two men being Lonnie’s best friends. And the film’s emotional climax comes when Pam assembles all Lonnie’s surviving victims – not just the one, as recorded by the LAPD – and they all slowly, painfully, relate on camera their experiences with Lonnie for the first time. ‘Emotional’ is too weak an adjective.
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that police ineptness and administrative apathy are the main reasons people say goodbye with a ‘Be safe!’ rather than a ‘Take care!’. Broomfield drops hints of these attitudes throughout the film, periodically informing of us of important information the police withheld from the public for over a decade, until we get several consecutive scenes near the end which convey just how opaque the system is. To his request for an interview, Broomfield received the following response from [LA Mayor] Antonio Villaraigosa’s office: “The Mayor will only speak on the decrease in crime in Los Angeles, but not on the Grim Sleeper case.” In what seems like a deliberate decision by Broomfield, certain words are highlighted in yellow, to read: “The Mayor… not on the Grim Sleeper case.” After showing us photographic evidence of further refusals of senior officials to be involved in the film, Broomfield cuts to Dennis Kilcoyne, head of the Grim Sleeper task force, saying at a self-congratulatory LAPD press conference: “We have done our job correctly.”
Such pointed editing is the closest Broomfield gets to Michael Moore-esque polemic. This film is beyond that; it even pulls off the coup of wangling an extraordinarily illuminating interview with Christopher Franklin, an interview which, coming at the end of the film, sums up the case against the LAPD. But Broomfield doesn’t allow such deeply consequential content to preclude humour. If anything, the humour enhances the anger. Margaret Prescod, co-founder of the aforesaid Black Coalition, describes the LAPD’s self-congratulatory press conference as “quite a show” – clearly her euphemism for ‘bullshit’. “They were the greatest thing since sliced white bread,” she says acerbically. Perhaps her pointed emphasis of “white” shouldn’t have had me guffawing loudly, but it did.
“I don’t wanna believe it. I don’t wanna believe it. I don’t wanna believe it,” repeats Gary near the film’s end. “Man, that would blow my mind.” Broomfield’s genius lies in how he extracts these near-admissions, and in his adeptness at capturing the endless complexities of both individuals and communities. Aided ably by H. Scott Salinas’s heavy-breathing-and-piano-samples score, we’re served up an angry, compassionate, unsettling, and thoroughly memorable documentary dish; and who knows? It wouldn’t be the first time a documentary has effected social change.